Today we conclude our series of extracts from my dear friend Phil Moore’s new books. I hope you have enjoyed them as much as I did!
YOUR CALL (1:2)
“To the church of God in Corinth … together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
Paul never uses the word ‘Christian’ in his letters. It’s not just that the word was used as a label of contempt back in 55AD.1 He had a theological reason to avoid it as well. Paul understood that a noun like ‘Christian’ was simply not enough to convey what it means to follow Jesus. It means far, far more than deciding to tick a box on a census return or an evangelist’s response card. Paul needs a verb to describe what following Jesus really means. It means calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul was not stating anything new here. Right from the very first chapters of Genesis, the followers of Yahweh were those who called upon the name of the Lord.2 Great Israelites such as Samuel, David and Elijah followed suit.3 Therefore Peter and Paul were simply quoting from the Jewish Scriptures when they preached in Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13 that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”4 The Gospel is a promise that if we call upon the name of Jesus then God is sure to answer.
One of the reasons we find God’s grace so surprising towards the sinful church at Corinth is that we forget the power unleashed by those who call on Jesus’ name. When we say that God forgives people’s sin because he is merciful, Paul tells us that we are only stating half of the picture. Mercy alone cannot triumph over justice unless someone turns mercy into an action which justifies. God cannot simply give us grace, Paul reminds us in verse 4, but can only give us grace “in Christ Jesus.” The Old Testament believers were not forgiven when they called on the name of the Lord because they regretted their sin and set their hearts on self-improvement. They were forgiven because they offered blood sacrifices as God commanded, which pointed to a day when the Son of God would come to earth and die for them. Paul tells us in verse 2 that Jesus is the Lord of the Old Testament, the promised Christ, or Messiah, on whose name God’s People must call. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”5
Now Paul takes this teaching one step further. It may not be obvious in our English translations, but Paul actually uses a ‘present participle’ here in verse 2. That was how the Greeks spoke of repeated activity and it talks literally of “all those everywhere who keep on calling on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul doesn’t want us to be fooled that the normal Christian life is in any way different from Christian conversion – it simply means carrying on in the manner in which we started. It means calling afresh on the name of Jesus every single day.
Recently, I went to the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Security was high and they were closed to the public, but I have a friend who works on the inside. I stood at the door and rang up to his office, and he in turn phoned down for the guards to let me in. I ‘called on his name’ and he answered me, which is what Christians do at the gates of God’s throne-room. Paul tells us in verse 9 that we have koinônia – fellowship or partnership – with Jesus and that we can lay hold of the blessings which are ours through him simply by calling on his name.6
Suddenly we begin to see how God could use a church like Corinth and how he can still use churches like our own. If we treat ‘Christian’ as a noun, then things don’t look very hopeful for us. How could they be, when we fall so far short of the Christ whom we follow? But if we understand that ‘Christian’ means calling on the name of the Lord Jesus, then we grasp with Paul that God’s blessing is only natural. When we call on the name of Jesus, God’s true blood sacrifice, then of course he doesn’t hold our sins and weaknesses against us. When we call on the name of Jesus, God’s true Passover Lamb, then of course he sets us free from the stranglehold of sin in the same way that he freed the Hebrews from the tyrant rule of Pharaoh.7 Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how little we deserve God to use us. What matters is whether we call on Jesus’ name, the name which has authority to overcome our weakness.
When I first became a Christian, I was advised that “The Holy Spirit only fills clean vessels.” I needed to spruce up my act, I was told, if I ever wanted to see the Kingdom of God come in power in my life. I can understand what those well-meaning helpers were trying to convey, but it is hard to reconcile with the experience of the Corinthians, who were steeped in sin and compromise yet in verse 7 did not “lack any spiritual gift.”8 It is hard to reconcile with Samson, who found that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power” even though he could be found with the prostitutes of Gaza.9 It is also hard to reconcile with Peter’s refusal to let people “stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk … It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing.”10 Gifts are given because we call on the name of Jesus, not earned by jumping through the hoops of religious effort.
Do you see now why Paul doesn’t simply address his wider readership in verse 2 as ‘Christians’? He wants each of us to grasp the lesson which he had taught the Corinthians, and to discover strength through weakness just as they did. He wants us to stop cataloguing the problems which face us and to start calling on the name which overcomes every single one of them.
“Are you so foolish?” Paul asks in a similar passage in another of his letters. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? … Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law or because you believe what you heard?”11
I hope you find Paul’s question easy to answer. I hope that it gets you excited that God can use Christians like us and churches like our own. Will you lay hold of the power of Jesus’ name? Paul tells you in this verse that it’s your call.